THE NOVELIST • by Michael Mallory

It was getting cold outside, cold and windy; the sort of night that encouraged very few people to go out near the water. Figuring that she had seen the last customer of the day, Carina went into the back room of her small shop at the end of the tourist pier and sat down at her computer. She had only entered a page’s worth of prose when she sensed two more customers. The two voices were arguing, and the man’s was loud and forceful enough to be heard through the walls of her shop.

“You’ve had some stupid ideas before, but this is a prizewinner!” a man’s voice was shouting. “You know these psychics are nothing but rip-off artists!”

“Ray, just let me do this,” she heard a woman reply. “It won’t hurt you.”

After saving her work, Carina stepped back through the beaded curtain into the dimly lit, potpourri-scented sitting room (unlike her mother and grandmother, she was allergic to incense). As the two entered, she said: “Good evening, I am Carina; you are here of your own free will.”

“The hell I am,” the man grumbled. He was dark-eyed and swarthy, probably in his mid-to-late thirties.

“I’ve come for a reading,” said the woman, who was younger and wore a red aura of concern about her. “Well, I guess that’s obvious. Why else would I be here?”

“Because you’re stupid,” Ray spat.

The man was a bully, and Carina already disliked him. Not that it mattered. “Please take a seat,” she said, focusing on the woman. “The basic reading will be twenty-five dollars.”

“Twenty-five bucks?” Ray shouted. “What a racket!”

“You can wait outside if you want,” the woman said.

“If I walk out of here, I leave. You find your own way home, lady.”

The woman pulled out a twenty and a five from her purse and handed the bills to Carina. “My name is Naomi, by the way. What do you want me to do?”

“You’ve already done what she wants you to do!” Ray sneered.

Carina ignored him. “Give me your right palm,” she instructed Naomi, and upon touching it with both hands, she knew instantly the woman was pregnant. “Do you have a particular question?”

“Um, well, I’m not sure how to ask.”

“Think it.”

Am I dooming myself by staying with Ray? Carina clearly heard. She studied the woman’s palm for a second and then frowned. She looked up at the man. “May I see your palm, too?”

“Leave me the hell out of this, okay?”

“Ray, show her your palm.”

“There is no need to be afraid,” Carina said.

“What do you mean, afraid? Who do you think you’re talking to?”

“I will know as soon as I see your hand.”

Ray shoved his palm in front of her so violently that Carina flinched, and she studied it, and then sighed. “Mr. Manoli, please call a cab this evening. You have drunk too much tonight to drive.”

Ray’s face blanched, and he uttered a curse at her. “What do you know, you — hey, how come you know my name? I never told you my last name!”

“She’s a psychic, Ray,” Naomi said.

“Crap!” You two cooked this little act up somehow. “I don’t know what your game is, but I’ve had enough.” He spun around and headed for the door.

Naomi turned to the psychic imploringly. “What should I do?”

Before Carina could answer, Ray screamed, “Come on!” and grabbed Naomi by the arm, pulling her out of the chair and forcing her through the door, which he then slammed so hard behind him that the small shop shook.

A lump formed in Carina’s throat. “The answer to your question, Naomi, is yes,” she told the empty room. Her head hurt; she was heartsick. But she knew what she had to do. She had no choice, just as her mother had none, nor her grandmother, nor her maternal ancestors as far back as could be counted. Locking the door, she returned to the back room and sat back down before the computer, and began to type.

Ray was a reckless driver at the best of times, but the combination of anger and alcohol, twin evils that fed upon each other, made him lethal. To Naomi’s distress, he peeled out of the parking lot, skidding on the damp, salted planks of the pier, narrowly missing the front end of a brand new Lexus.
“Ray, you’ll kill us both!” she screamed, not daring to say instead “all three of us.” A tear fell from Carina’s eye, and she wiped it away and resumed working.

If anything, Ray’s anger intensified. By the time he got to the freeway ramp, he was driving like a madman, as though there were no other vehicles on the road, only his. He seemed not to hear the blaring horn of the semi truck, but Naomi heard, and she screamed. A second later, the only noise was the sound of screeching tires, shattering glass and twisting metal.

God, would she ever get used to this?

Carina kept typing until she was finished; finished for the evening, at any rate. She would never be finished with The Book, nor would her daughter to come, or her daughter’s daughter. Finishing The Book finished everything.

Exhausted, she pressed “Save,” backed her work up, and then switched off the computer, her soul free once more until tomorrow. Then Carina braved the chilly night air on the pier and stood in the darkness, listening. She was barely able to make out the far-off, windborne whine of the ambulance.

Michael Mallory is the author of some 100 short stories, mostly mystery, which have been published everywhere from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to Discovery, the magazine of Hong Kong Airlines. His books include the collection The Exploits of the Second Mrs. Watson and the novel Murder in the Bath.

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